Columbus Day is now “contested,” as current terminology would have it. Some view with joy the anniversary of the navigator’s historic landing in part of the Bahamas. Others see a day to mark the beginning of oppression, enslavement, and genocide.
Both sides claim Catholic America as their home.
As a Latino Catholic, I prefer a third option — a Latin American version of Columbus Day as Día de la Raza, a day we celebrate the beginning of a “new breed” within the human family. José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher, called it the Cosmic Breed.
The conflicting approaches to Columbus Day is not a trivial matter to be dismissed with a footnote that Columbus did not actually “discover” America. This is a fight over control of the symbols that make America. Did the Western Hemisphere’s continents become a “New World” because of Christopher Columbus or in spite of him? And is there another perspective?
Whatever Columbus’ intentions or mistakes, Latin America under Spain began to tolerate, legalize, and eventually encourage racial intermarriage.
Some hold up this Genovese sailor as the far-sighted free thinker who brought science to a benighted age that didn’t even realize the world is round. He carried Western civilization to the red-skinned savages scattered about in un-Christian and unproductive societies. In a Protestant nineteenth-century United States, Columbus was extolled for having transcended Catholic Spain and Europe when he had placed enterprise and science at the centerpiece of his vision. Thus, it has been argued, he constituted the noble “first” American, because the United States alone has followed in his legacy. Towns were named after him in celebration of such achievements. Not to be outdone in this generally Protestant enthusiasm, the Catholic answer to Masonic Lodges named themselves “the Knights of Columbus,” emphasizing his Catholicity.
The contrasting view of Columbus has emerged more recently. The Americas already were populated by peoples happily living in harmony with nature, it is said. Columbus brought genocidal epidemics, disastrous wars of conquest, and continuing oppression by creating colonial societies that based superiority on racial whiteness. The deaths of tens of millions of Native Americans and the senseless attacks of their cultures and religions were the fault of Christopher Columbus. Rather than a day of rejoicing and parades, the October holiday should be observed with mourning and funeral marches.
If you have an Italian Catholic as a friend, you can get a fuller explanation of the first vision of Columbus firsthand; if you know a Latino or Latina, turn to them for chapter and verse on the second interpretation of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. If you have a half-Italian-half-Puerto Rican in your family, as I do, prepare for bewilderment.
History does not provide much solution to this confusion. Columbus was an enigmatic character, both skilled at the helm of his ships and inept as a governor of his discoveries. Moreover, suffering what appears to have been a nervous breakdown when his hair turned completely white almost overnight, his last writings add to the mystery. Was he a nut case with wildly distorted understandings or a saintly mystic of deep piety?
At any rate, the debate is about Columbus as a symbol, not as a historical figure.
I rest with the Latin American version of Columbus Day: Día de la Raza. We celebrate not so much the event as its result — a “new breed” within the human family. (“Raza” doesn’t mean “race” in quite the same way as in English.) Whatever Columbus’ intentions or mistakes, Latin America under Spain began to tolerate, legalize, and eventually encourage racial intermarriage. Centuries later, the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos described us as La Raza Cósmica (the Cosmic Breed) because we have virtually all of the world’s skin colors in our demographic rainbow: white, black, red, and yellow.
Racial mixture is what we Latinos and Latinas celebrate on Columbus Day. As the Puerto Rican patriot Pedro Albizu Campos proclaimed, there is a distinctive Catholic pride in this holiday. Unlike so much of Protestant North America, where racial mixing was looked down upon, Catholic Latin America officially recognized the equality of races at the dawn of modern history.
I am happy to celebrate Columbus Day by thanking God for my Puerto Rican-Italian nephews and nieces. Let’s make it a day for the living, not for the dead.